Welcome to breakup TikTok, we're all trying to pick ourselves back up here
“It was either make a TikTok, or text him.”
From the inner lives of bus driver baddies to dramatics staged with Sylvanian Families dolls, there’s a subsection of TikTok for just about anything you can imagine. It’s hardly a surprise, then, that something as universal as heartbreak has found an unfathomably large audience on the app.
To paint a picture for you, the #breakup hashtag currently boasts around nine billion views, with countless motivational speeches, breakup playlists and dramatic revenge glow-ups to scroll through. But some users are going beyond the mere discussion of heartbreak in neatly packaged, snappily edited clips — they want to document the messy, turbulent reality of it all.
When 26-year-old Nora (@norashepardcreations) from Chicago broke up with her boyfriend last November, she was feeling utterly hopeless. The weather in the city was getting colder, the days were getting shorter and the pandemic had her feeling cut off from friends.
“It was either make a TikTok, or text him,” she says. For Nora, turning to the app was a cathartic form of creative expression, a way to really process everything that was happening. This first video — which sees her holding back tears, furiously writing down her feelings, and detailing the last conversation they had — would mark the start of a series documenting her break up for the following two months.
Social media content is often criticised as a “highlight reel” of our lives, but relational psychologist Floriana Maione says that users today are reaching new heights in online vulnerability. “We tend to give more space to grief, sadness and healing on social media than we did before. This change [has created] a space to document something like a heartbreak online — I assume that at least part of what can be motivating them is a desire to have their grief acknowledged and seen, and perhaps to let it fade away.”
TikTok is not exclusively a display case for things like heartbreak, pain and trauma: the platform still has attractive people doing questionable dances, wholesome trends like the ‘kiss your pet on the head’ challenge, and fantastically unhinged ventures such as the Ratatouille musical. But the platform has undeniably opened up a space for social media users to engage with the messier, more unpredictable and painful parts of life.
Of course, it’s not just Nora who has found solace in sharing her break up experience online. 23-year-old Eimer (@eimerelizabeth) from Leeds began documenting her post-heartbreak journey in June of 2020. “It started as an impulse. I think my first video was just of me crying with like, a sad caption. I posted it without thinking too much.” This was two weeks after she’d broken up with her ex, marking the end of a toxic relationship that saw her isolated from friends and family. “It was blind reach for anyone who could relate,” she adds. “I think I was just a bit desperate to be seen or heard.”
Perhaps, as Nora suggests, people are “starving for vulnerability”. Floriana points out that, over the centuries, people have turned to literature, theatre, poetry, music and cinema to find relief and an understanding of how other people handle their heartbreak. “Considering this and the current times,” she says, “I assume this is also manifesting itself in social media." And there is clearly an appetite for break up content: after posting her second video on a Sunday night, Nora woke up to 200,000 views the next morning. Eimer’s TikToks currently have a combined total of 1.7 million likes, dominating the #breakupjourney hashtag.
“The community of people snowballed. People were reaching out telling me how much my videos meant to them. I was getting hundreds of DMs,” says Nora. Eimer’s videos even inspired others to make something similar: “I know a few girls who started their own TikTok break up journeys because they saw mine. And that's pretty cool to watch.” As Floriana points out, these videos reaffirm that “grief is part of life, that we all struggle at times and that it also fades away. It might also mean a viewer who is experiencing something similar feels less isolated.”
In a time of enforced isolation, it makes sense that people are craving community online. After all, the pandemic hasn’t exactly been a fruitful environment when it comes to love — breakups and divorces have spiked over the past year or so, and lockdowns have left those facing heartbreak feeling more alone than ever.
“A breakup is so lonely, and a pandemic is so lonely. Going through a break up in a pandemic… I was just so sad,” says Nora. While she had the support of friends and family, she explains that it’s just “not the same” speaking through a phone screen. Eimer can relate. “All I had was waking up every day in my own head, living the same day over and over. Lockdown was really hard, so TikTok was an outlet.”
Floriana understands why some might rely more on TikTok for support, but she has serious doubts over the extent to which this can help. “In a pandemic, we can’t get many face-to-face interactions, so someone might rely more on social media,” she says. “But this absolutely cannot be a replacement for deep human interactions, especially when we are grieving, as that’s when we need it the most. Broadcasting one’s emotions is not enough to process and understand what we are feeling and why. We can only achieve that through conversations in safe, deep, human-to-human, relationships. The relationship with another person is very limited on TikTok: it’s mainly one-way, it’s partial from both sides, and it’s filtered by a screen.”
Interestingly, Nora never actually intended for anyone else to see her first video. “I had seven followers, and they were all, like, my cousins,” she says. Even if their follower counts had remained in the single digits (Nora now has 24.4K and Eimer has 69.5K) and that swell of online support hadn’t been there, social psychologist Tara Marshall believes that the very act of creating videos would still have had a healing effect. “Documenting heartbreak may help the creator to make sense of the breakup. It could allow them to develop a narrative that gives a sense of closure, allows inferences to be made about why things happened the way they did, and to release emotions.”
Floriana adds that it’s essential to find balance when going through a breakup. “Grieving is an important part of the healing process, and is absolutely necessary. But other steps are needed: reflecting on what led to the breakup, and finding distractions from it.”
Now that Nora and Eimer are in much better places emotionally, they both look back on their documentation of the past few months fondly. For them, it’s a testament to how far they’ve come, and an inspiration to others going through the same. “The most human thing is to connect over shared experiences,” says Nora. “And it's just a new platform to do so. It sounds so silly but that community of people really did change my life.”